Who the Hell Was William Tell?

12 Apr

An apple. A crossbow. A father and son.  That is all that I could recall about Swiss history. It was the story of William Tell and his son and how the father had to shoot an apple off of his son’s head. He succeeded, but I didn’t know any more than that. I was also familiar with the famous William Tell overture by Gioacchino Rossini from its use as the theme for the old TV series “The Lone Ranger”. However, I had no clue of the significance of the apple shot on the course of history. So I looked it up.

Once upon a time in central Europe there were three forest cantons (states) that banded together to form the nucleus of an independent Switzerland. These were Unterwalden, Schwyz, and Uri combined in a league in 1291. Luzern joined them in 1332. The cantons were all situated around a large lake which came to be known as The Lake of the Four Forest Cantons or Vierwaldstättersee (the present day Lake of Lucerne).


At the same time the Hapsburg family of Germany having expanded their territory eastward into Austria was now looking to consolidate its territory in Switzerland. It planned to dominate Uri and thereby control the Gotthard Pass. These maneuvers threatened the freedom of the new Swiss confederation. One of the Hapsburg officers Albrecht Gessler put a hat of top of a pole in the town square of Altdorf  (Uri) and demanded that everyone bow to it. This was the setting for the legend of William Tell.

(A mosaic of William Tell in the Swiss National Museum in Zurich)


William Tell (according to Tschudi) came from the town of Bürglen. He was a mountain climber, very strong, and an expert with the crossbow. On November 18, 1307 he came to Altdorf with his young son and refused to bow to the hat and give obeisance to the Habsburgs.  Gessler was infuriated and arrested him. He planned to execute both Tell and his son, but first devised a cruel punishment. He promised to free them if Tell would shoot an apple off of his son’s head with one try. William Tell split the apple successfully. However, that did not resolve the issue, because Gessler queried Tell as to why he had removed two arrows from his quiver. Tell replied that had he missed and hit his son, the second arrow was for Gessler himself. Now Gessler had William Tell bound and put him on a boat for Küssnacht where he would be thrown into a dungeon. A terrible storm erupted during the voyage allowing William Tell to escape. He leaped to safety onto some rocks (now known as Tell’s Slab and memorialized by a chapel bearing his name.) On dry land he ran to Küsnacht where he waited for Gessler’s arrival. There he assassinated him with the remaining arrow on a road known as Hohle Gasse. Later accounts mention that Tell participated in the Battle of Morgarten in 1315 against the Austrians when the Swiss devised a successful ambush of the Austrian forces. How much of this legend is true cannot be determined, because there are no definitive sources. Nevertheless, William Tell remains a historical and legendary figure who represents Swiss freedom and self-determination.

Hohle Gasse between Küsnacht and Immensee where William Tell assassinated Gessler.



2 Responses to “Who the Hell Was William Tell?”

  1. Sartenada April 12, 2013 at 10:09 am #

    William Tell is well known in Finland. We love heroes and he was.

  2. paulandjodie April 13, 2013 at 1:06 pm #

    Isn’t it great to follow a story on your travels? Thanks for visiting five star tent. That journey is over, but I’ve just started blogging again at http://themehop.wordpress.com/ so feel free to visit me there.

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